Features : The Manipulated Image
Nowadays every Hollywood blockbuster in its entirety goes through a digital gateway between filming and release print. So what happens in front of the camera is merely pixel-grist for the digital 'mill'. In this article, Keith Griffiths argues that the possibility to digitally manipulate every single frame of live-action film returns the form to the realm of animation. The computer's intervention in 'post-production' can now be liberated in pursuit of 'hallucinations of reality'.
Five years ago, one was likely to be branded a deeply suspicious bar room bore, to be avoided at all costs, by merely mentioning the word 'Digital'. Pedants remained convinced that 'cinema' was that island of luminous reality, a spec of light projected onto the hallowed multi-screen sheds littering the perimeter of our provincial malls and ring-roads. Nowadays, comment on the state and future of 'digital cinema' appears as regularly as clockwork across a wide range of the critical and trade press. Digital pollution rides high on the Richter scale, it is impossible to ignore. 'Digital' has arrived.
But arrived from where? And what are the likely ramifications of this on a continuously evolving new wave of cinema practitioners and producers? Back in 1995, the optimistic techno-pioneering director James Cameron said, "we're on the threshold of a moment in cinematic history that is unparalleled. Anything you imagine can be done. If you can draw it, if you can describe it, we can do it." (Wired, Dec. 1995) Cameron continued, "anything is possible right now if you throw enough money at it, or enough time. We have the right tools, or we can combine tools, to do anything. But, that doesn't mean it's easy, that it's straightforward, that it's intuitive, or that it's cost effective." (Wired May 1996)
However, to achieve any cinema of ambition and imagination, whether it is of the mega-budget Hollywood scale that Cameron reveres, or the "low - no budget" indie camp, it requires a new kind of "talent". Curiously, in Hollywood the word "talent" was previously only reserved for actors, the bulwarks at the storytelling heart of the movies. The digital artisan talents, the cool dudes, who are going to be the backbone of the cinema of the future will inevitably emerge as strange mutants. As Scott Ross, the Chief Executive of the special effects house Digital Domain told the Hollywood Reporter, "the kind of artistic digital specialists the technology requires don't really exist yet. We are basically asking a lot of people to learn Esperanto and write poetry at the same time." (Wired Dec. 1995)
Much of the recent debate about digital cinema has been sparked, not by the startling digital Special Effects of recent blockbusters, but rather by the distinct range of ultra low budget movies shot on digital (DV) video. The Last Broadcast, The Blair Witch Project and of course the first fruits from Lars von Trier's provocative Dogme95 project, - in particular The Idiots and Festen (The Celebration), both of which were launched at Cannes in 1998. The current razzmatazz surrounding these very modestly budgeted and firmly conventional realist films now dominates most debates about digital cinema and consequently associates it firmly with a no-budget-garage-band school of apparently more truthful filmmaking.
Hollywood pioneered the digital technologies
But, the euphoria surrounding this low cost digital production of films has somewhat submerged the short but remarkable history of technological dreams and achievements of the intrepid big budget egg heads. One should not forget that it was Hollywood that shouldered much of the costly burden of research and development in the new technologies. Also, it was they who could afford to pioneer and embrace computer and digital experiments on a larger scale, from the technological and aesthetic challenges of Francis Ford Coppola's electronically produced and painted One From the Heart (1982) through to Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man (2000), of which Alexander Walker in his regular column in the London Evening Standard surprisingly wrote, " a film whose bleeding-edge technology is up there with such landmarks of art and science as 2001 : A Space Odyssey." (Sept. 2000)
To look back at some of those highlights is still revealing and breathtaking. Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) was the first film to feature a computer-generated character in the form of a stained-glass knight; in Star Trek IV (1986) the heads of the principal cast were scanned to create a time-travel effect. Three-dimensional computer-generated imagery made its debut in James Cameron's The Abyss (1989), and he then carried forward his experiments in morphing to create the first human-based computer character in Terminator 2 (1992). In Death Becomes Her (1992) Robert Zemickis digitally cosmeticised both Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn and Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), with realistic marauding prehistoric animals, audiences were reportedly driven to edge of their seats. Forrest Gump (1994), The Mask (1994), Casper (1995), and Species (1995), were all landmark, mega-budget films from the front line of a digital cinema movement, that was to lead to Toy Story (1995) being the first 100 per cent computer generated animation motion picture. Since then the technological process has accelerated phenomenally and Titanic (1997) Antz (1998) A Bugs Life (1998) The Phantom Menace (1999), The Matrix (1999) and Gladiators (2000), all "pushed the digital envelope" further than most people could have dreamt was possible a decade earlier.
In 1996 James Cameron prophesised that, "it would be five years at the earliest and ten years at the latest, before most movies are scanned end to end after filming." (Wired May 1996) In essence, what he was predicting was a revolution in the very nature and the value of the film frame. He could foresee that each and every frame would soon be manipulated and transformed digitally and that from hence forth, film footage captured through the lens was clearly to be demoted to raw data.
Digital filmmaking becomes a 'democratic' technology
George Lucas foresaw the other central debate in digital movie-production, when he declared that it would, "eventually create a more democratic filmmaking environment. Anyone will be able to create movies. Pretty soon you'll be doing it on your PC." (Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures, Thomas A Ohanian and Michael E Phillips, 1996) Indeed, now four years later, filmmaking has never been more accessible and affordable. Many new digital feature films at the micro independent end of the market are actually being made for a few thousand pounds. The theory behind this democratisation is that filmmakers can make films more often, keep practising their craft and take more creative risks. But as Rod Stoneman (Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board) writes, "Before we get carried away with our own optimism we should put this development in context. Cultural production always involves that ineffable, but important component - talent, brilliance, creativity. There has been a widespread cheap availability of the biro for a long time - but there are not a large number of great new novels published each year." (Film and the Digital Future : forthcoming issue of KINEMA) And, this is the rub, are filmmakers taking more cinematic and aesthetic risks and do we want or need more movies anyway?
The practical issues of production economics and access have tended to dominate the majority of public debates to date. The charismatic American low budget indie promoter John Pierson (Spike Lee and Kevin Smith were just two of his remarkable success stories) admits that the new digital image making gizmos are inspiring a phenomenally wide range of people to make movies, but he remains cautious about the long-term benefits. He recognises what many forget, that it is "very hard to make a good feature film. But maybe putting the possibility in the hands of more people is a net gain." (The Auteur as Gearhead, David Chute. The LA Weekly June 2000)
Res magazine (a DV quarterly devoted to "The Future of Filmmaking") boldly predicts that there will be "a shift in power, one that turns in the favour of independent filmmakers and away from the studios." This view is supported by the born-again Lenny Lipton of the digital age, Peter Broderick. As President of Next Wave Films, started in 1997, he provides support to new filmmakers making ultra-low budget English language features around the world and tries to convert all who fall into his path to the "value" of the Digital Revolution. "The digital word has spread rapidly among filmmakers. When people ask me how much they need to make a feature, I ask them how much they have because that will probably be enough." (The Auteur as Gearhead, David Chute. The LA Weekly June 2000)
Storytelling overrides new visual possibilities
Rarely, however, does Broderick or his evangelists publicly address the question of the aesthetic potential that is dramatically being opened up by the advances in the technology. Indeed, the aesthetic ambitions would appear to be fundamentally reined in by relying on the conventions of mainstream narrative storytelling that dominates both the Hollywood system and the majority of low budget feature films produced and distributed commercially. Next Wave Films stress that the keys to success after "dedication" are "a strong, unique script that grows out of a filmmaker's personal experience and passion... whatever you do, resist high concepts". This manual for production success is inevitably extremely attractive and tempting to the filmmakers who primarily want a cut-price short cut into the "commercial industry". (DIY=DVC. Peter Broderick, Sight & Sound. March 1999)
It is equally appealing to public funding bodies, who increasingly need to justify their activities with instant success and a recognisably palatable if unchallenging product. To take risks, or to attempt failure, in order to see is not the vocabulary of the Next Wave Digital Manual, and is probably too high a concept anyway. It is certainly some distance from Jean Luc Godard's dictum "to see not this or that, but only to see if there is something to see". (Revue Belge du Cinema, no. 20/23 Jean Luc Godard 1989.) The independent sector, targeted by Next Wave Films, could once be clearly defined as a nerve centre for process, a think-tank for the stimulation of ideas, where filmmakers often had the courage to bite the hand of those who fed them because, sooner rather than later, their creative content would perversely (re-)fuel the commercial system. This quality of subversion has now increasingly been (re-) decorated by a new cool voguish movement, which is in equal measure conservative and economically austere. The success of the revivalist Next Wave "road-show meetings" across the globe is thus explained by the dictum - the revolution is nigh but don't panic: it's neither threatening nor challenging.
One of the pivotal issues for the new digital cinema is highlighted by the respected American independent producer, script writer and academic James Shamus. In a reprinted Round Table discussion "Independence in the Cinema" (October 91 Winter 2000) Shamus condemns his academic colleagues for "embedding the understanding of cinema in primarily a visual arts context" and for a "lack of interest in the power of narrative."
Like Peter Broderick, Shamus clearly nails his colours and his increasingly successful Hollywood career to a conventional cinematic mast. He chooses blatantly to ignore the reverse side of the coin and to recognise that the digital signposts point back to the future and the inspirational and painterly hand-crafted origins of early cinema. Jean Luc Godard's point in his video essay Scenario du Passion was that in early cinema they started by just filming and that "scripts" came later, the invention of production companies, as a way of breaking down and itemising costs.
It is of course not surprising that the majority of critics, filmmakers and audiences still equate the cinema with "conventional storytelling" and the term "digital", as some form of new and possibly interactive way of exploring narrative, or an engagement with the characters and their plot lines. However, the critic and image maker, Lev Manovitch usefully reminds us that "narrative" explores only one aspect of cinema and one which is neither unique nor that essential to it, "the challenge which digital media poses to cinema extends far beyond the issue of narrative. Digital media redefines the very identity of cinema." (What is Digital Filmmaking?). Manovitch proposes that the lens based recording of reality, which has been the perimeter fence of cinema, is challenged irrevocably by a digital world, because the computer, operated by a skilled artisan, can create similar and totally credible photo realistic images and scenes which have never actually been filmed.
Pre-cinema history became marginalised animation
Here one is inevitably drawn back to the development of the optical tools and toys which predominately define our recognition of the "pre-cinema" period. There were those famous optical 'toys', including the Thaumatrope, the Praxinscope, the Zoetrope which all utilised the manual manipulation of images, or frames, often hand-painted and hand-animated. In particular, the magic lantern shows, with their hand-painted frames, became increasingly complex, with presentations using overlapping and multi-plane images projecting apparent motion. Engineers, optical experts, projectionists and performers also collaborated to create the phantasmagoric illusions and performances, (an aesthetic of the supernatural), for the visual entertainment of the middle classes. These parlour room and entertainment hall projections helped create the public appetite for the range of entertainment genres that would soon encompass most of the cinema and television of the future: travelogues, natural history, the everyday affairs of the military and royalty, fairy tales and melodramas. This rich and complex period of "pre-cinema history" is of course but one example of the metamorphosis of a very everyday literary culture into one that will become increasingly visually informed. And, the start of an era when once more art, science and technology become increasingly and refreshingly inter linked.
As this history of mechanically generated images and products evolved, it gradually progressed into what we now define and recognise as "cinema", being a place where a typically itinerant form of entertainment began to be organised outside the walls of the home, and commercially developed for a wider public. At the same time, the value, recognition and importance of these hand manipulated and painted images became increasingly marginalised and metamorphosised into one of the most despised genres of cinema: animation. So, on the one hand, there was a graphic, non-photographic, and often self-consciously constructed discursive and discontinuous form. On the other, was an ever and increasingly stable technology, with a "dominant storytelling narrative" form, where the production process itself was increasingly eliminated from sight, and where reality was recorded or "captured" by a lens onto film. The magic theatre was transformed into the dark cave of flickering fleeting images, where audiences pinned to their seats peered at the reality of their everyday lives and experiences. All so-called special effects, whether mechanical or optical, employed in this (re-)production process were now used towards the creation of a completely recognisable "reality".
Every movie frame can now be manipulated
But, with the radical development of computing technologies over the past two decades, the perimeter fence has dissolved quite dramatically. The animated image, which had come to be viewed as only a marginal format, and the Cinders of cinema for almost a century, has now once again become absolutely central to the cinematic production process. The big budget bruiser Jean-Jacques Annaud acknowledged this when he wrote, "today many people grow up in front of electronic screens rather than library shelves, better acquainted with the iconography of electronic games than the poetry of Baudelaire. The talent of new auteurs will therefore rely less on dialogue. After all, the cinema was built around an animated picture. It has once more the option of becoming an animated painting." (Sight & Sound 1996)
Logic suggests that we might now therefore be reaching a full circle in the history of a cinema, which was born with the hand-manipulated animated image and now has the potential of returning to that point. Digital filmmakers with the training and sensibility of conventional animators can and probably will soon modify every frame of a film by hand, the raw footage being only the first process in a continuous graphic animation process of rearranging and painting "a filmed reality". James Cameron's 1996 spectre of ninety minutes or 129,600 hand-manipulated images is now upon us. And, as Jean-Jacques Annaud predicted, "the pendulum of power will swing to directors, who will be able to work not only on the set with human material, but before and after shooting, with all the tools for creating dreams at their fingertips. New technologies will do more for cinema auteurs than the cinephile militants of the 50s ever did." (Sight & Sound. 1996)
Cameron explains that in the early days of both electronic and digital cinema, whilst there was of course always active research, "it was being done in rarefied environments, at universities and the R&D labs of big software companies. It hadn't reached the artists yet, per se. It hadn't pollinated into the film industry which had both the art and money to make it a broad cultural phenomenon." (Wired May 1996) But, crucially as this cross pollination has spread, costs have lowered, economic software has become more widespread, and increasingly a wide range of traditional motion picture techniques have been replaced by digital technologies, many of them just bought off the supermarket shelves. So, whilst nearly everything one needs is now readily available, "what you can't replace is the trained eye, and the heart of the artist. As much as computers have democratised information and computing, software still can't take the place of the artist's mind. You need people who not only have the soul of artists but are trained as artists not as technicians." (Wired May 1996) Once this newly defined "talent" base is in place, the logic of the lens-based motion picture production process itself could be turned upside down for good.
Live-action becomes pixel-grist for the digital animation mill
With this "talent", increasingly more live-action images will be displaced or made redundant by the ability to create spaces, places and people directly within the computer. As the computer does not distinguish between how an image is created, filmed live-action footage is merely reduced to raw data. It becomes no different to the graphic images created within the computer itself. Thus, live-action footage is now inevitably only the first phase of a production process, during which all images will be digitised, then composited, animated, colourised and morphed to create a new and largely imagined "digital realism". What was once defined as "post" or "end processes" have been fundamentally shifted to the very heart of the production of motion picture images. The conceptual structure of production has collapsed and the ordering of images, their surface and manipulation have become part and parcel of the same digital jigsaw. The painter-filmmaker that Jean Jacques Annaud whimsically spoke of has escaped his chains and is loose and well in the asylum.
The aesthetic opportunities that this digital revolution offers the painter-filmmakers and their coveted blank screens are now almost limitless. It is therefore somewhat surprising that in neither the fields of low and no-budget fiction nor documentary, has this challenge been significantly and radically seized. Unsurprisingly, most of the trailblazing work has been led by film and video artists like Iris Batsry (Passage to Utopia 1985-93), and in particular David Larcher (E Etc (1969-87) Videovoid Trailer, Videovoid Text, & Ich Tank (1983-98), both of whom are now working consistently with digital tools. These works are exemplary and monumental visual poetic meditations that defy any traditional definitions or genre.
The video artist Lynn Hershman attempted and only half succeeded with a crossover into low budget digital narrative, with her production Conceiving Ada (1997), starring Tilda Swinton as the famous computer pioneer and daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace. It is probably only the much abused and frequently critically rejected filmmaking path taken by the individualistic Peter Greenaway that offers any serious trajectory for digitally smearing and scratching away at the fiction frame's canvas. From the start of his career the fugitive Greenaway has developed a multi-image aesthetic, bathed his films in rich rippling layers and collaged the screen space with painted images and text. It is with some regret that Greenaway's directory of cinema-action is not one which many filmmakers have been stimulated to follow, though his modest avant-garde research and development programme has been consistently and successfully recuperated by the advertising industry in a multitude of forms.
More recently, some directors, notably Nicola Bruce in I Could Read the Sky, have managed to subtly weave DV footage into the body of a film, in an almost notebook style, to heighten the warmth, subjectivity and intimacy of the narrative. Whilst, Harmony Korine's julien donkey boy offered a unique but also incoherent visual cacophony from collaging eighty six hours of footage from the use of thirty different types of DV camera. Also, the directors of Pi and Run Lola Run, seized upon the use of digital post-production technology to create a fast and frantic "Avid aesthetic" that co-opts the old suits of the avant-garde merely to tailor more designer wear mainstream narratives.
The aesthetics of surveillance and internet technology
But, it has been both surveillance imaging and internet technology that has possibly been the most prominent aesthetic influence to date, used most effectively in Timecode (2000), directed by Mike Figgis. He has increasingly experimented with DV camera technology as part of a process of provoking both the Hollywood studios and the audience about where this digital revolution might all lead. "It is beyond the imagination what digital tools are doing to filmmaking, he enthused at a recent Guardian lecture he gave at the National Film Theatre.
Timecode comprises four separate narrative takes, each filmed continuously and simultaneously. Mounted on one screen split into quarters, the film involves twenty main players, who improvise dialogue and whose stories - and screen space - interweave and overlap. Natural sound, music and dialogue are edited and mixed in such a way to guide the viewer smoothly through multiple narratives. Figgis intends to produce DVD versions of the film that allow the viewer to sound-mix their own movie. "The potential for greater interactivity, for multiple outcomes, is enormous", explained Figgis, who also did several live sound mixes of the film at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2000. "I wanted to demonstrate the possibilities of how you could watch this film twenty times over and never experience the same thing." It is indeed at this level of playful storytelling and narrative order that the film is most interesting. "It is all about telling interesting stories - but with the new ability to tell more than one story at the same time, and in new ways." Yet, in terms of altering the actual surface or the palette of the film, Timecode remains strictly conventional.
Writer-filmmaker Chris Petit's 1993 short film Surveillance, on the other hand, whilst using a similar but more random split screen form, also starts to engage with the potential pleasures of a degraded picture surface and takes issue with 'storytelling' and 'narrative' in itself. In an almost Ballardian reverie Petit wrote, "I wondered if these surveillance images reminded me of experimental films. I also wondered if these automatic recordings weren't at the heart of a new avant-garde. They hark back to the first films ever made, to the simplicity of a cinema before stories, before production schedules, before the organisation of material, and without a narrative so that the viewer is freed to speculate on those daily details that later become the background to stories. These first films and this latest technology record what is there; people, weather, streets. They are primarily topographical and silent too. They also share the same lack of technical definition. In an age of high resolution, these smeared, dreamlike images have the comfort of a vague memory." (Film Comment : March-April 2001)
Dogme cinema reinvents 60's Direct Cinema movement
The most widely discussed digital feature films remain those made by the Dogme Trinity. In reality, these are clearly quite modest extensions of the films of the French New Wave and the North American documentary Direct Cinema movements of the Fifties and Sixties. Kristian Levring, Director of The King is Alive , Dogme #4 cheerfully acknowledges that, "of course, when you talk about Dogme, Godard should be president. Look at A Bout de Souffle (1959). I think that is probably the best Dogme film that could be made." (So you really think you can do it Dogme style ? Richard Kelly. Independent on Sunday, 2000) Certainly the notoriety of Dogme has principally developed because of the attraction of younger and impoverished filmmakers to the potential of the fast and restless hand held aesthetic that such new domestic lightweight camera technology can make so appealing and appalling.
However, it can be seen that the "rules" of the Direct Cinema movement of the early sixties, as outlined by Richard Leacock, are surprisingly and unerringly similar to the well publicised Danish Dogme95 manifesto. "No lights, no tripod, no microphone boom or pole, never wear headphones (they make you look silly and or remote), never more than two people, never ask anyone to do anything again and most especially never ask anyone to repeat an action or a line. Allow lots of time, don't shoot all the time, if you miss something, forget it in the hope that something like it will happen again. Get to know your subject if possible in order to generate some kind of mutual respect. OK these are rules, not laws, and rules can be broken." (Unpublished Essay. A Search for the Feeling of Being There. Richard Leacock 1997)
In 1954 with Jazz Dance, Leacock pioneered the use of a mobile and fluid film on 35mm, an achievement that is enough to even make a "digital maverick" of today blush. He called his whole process, "stages in de-professionalisation", which also rings true with the new digital school of thinking. The Director Roger Tilton wanted to capture as a short film the experience of an evening at a lower East Side New York Jazz Dance Hall. At the time the handiest camera was still a 35mm Mitchell NC and the Reeves magnetic 35mm sound recorder weighed about 70 pounds and was only called portable because it had handles on it. The only viable solution was for Leacock to shoot the dance hall with two hand-held spring-driven Eymo cameras - used for gathering war footage in WW II - with 100 feet loads which ran for just one minute. The longest take without rewinding was 15 seconds. This jumping, jiving, dancing movie is an unbelievable example of the mobile camera at work and despite extreme advances in camera technology has rarely been bettered.
The parallel development of new camera technologies with the evolving documentary aesthetic has always been critical. Bob Drew, as a former editor and reporter on Life magazine, knew how reportage could be significantly reshaped with miniaturised synchronous film equipment. So, using radically modified Auricon cameras and the new Bulova wrist-watches, the first 16mm hand-held mobile synchronised cameras were born. D A Pennebaker, Drew and Leacock revolutionised a chapter in the history of the documentary movement, and a whole body of films which presented unique, spontaneous and close personal observation were born. Leacock went onto MIT to explore the technology of Super 8 mm film cameras, CCD, Hi-8mm video and the new mini-digital camera technologies. Leacock, was of course only one of a number of mavericks that seriously connected the development and changes in camera technology to the documentary aesthetic and form. For example, George Stoney's use of the Video Porta-Paks within the National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change Program significantly altered the call for access for all, to media production tools.
The new wave of European 'essay films'
Some European emigrés, notably Jonas Mekas and Robert Frank, used mobile film camera technology to transform the post-war American 'underground' filmmaking scene. Mekas in particular created a series of highly personal and autobiographical diary films which one can argue were precursors for the present wave of essay films currently being made by distinguished filmmakers linked or related to the " French new wave" of the sixties. The late Robert Kramer with his last film (Cities of the Plain - 2000), Agnes Varda's moving and entertaining "wandering-road-documentary" The Gleaners and I (2000) and Alain Cavalier, have now turned to the easy to use, accessible mass market digital cameras as their technology of choice. As a result they have produced a body of first person authored documentary films that are arguably more distinctive, moving and profound than most of the over publicised Dogme films to date.
The Gleaners and I isn't about its director, as the title might suggest, but Varda does let her presence weave through the film. The subject is actually about the "foragers, rummagers and scavengers who, by necessity, purely through chance or out of choice, pick up leftover items discarded by others." (A. Varda at the NYC International Film Festival, 2000). She has said "that filmmaking is itself a kind of gleaning" and most of the filmmakers who have followed this path have discovered that these small domestic digital cameras can be used as both a very sophisticated vacuum cleaner and as a filmic pen. Consequently, the exceptionally subjective essay film emerges as one of the most suitable forms for the use of this digital technology.
Cavalier was born in 1931, and worked initially as an assistant to Louis Malle, before starting to direct his own films set in the painful reality of the Algerian war. From the mid-seventies he evolved a way of working with little-known actors and a pared down style of mise-en-scene. His most well known film in England, Therese (1986) was a rigorous and simple chamber piece. Throughout this body of work, Cavalier could be seen as a filmmaker of gesture and faces and pursued this fascination within the form of his recent subjective documentaries. La Recontre, screened at Locarno in 1996 and was exhibited at a single cinema in Paris for a year. He shot it himself on Hi-8 Video as a kind of intimate diary of everyday exchanges between his partner and himself. The edited images are like a series of miniature intimist paintings, which would have been impossible to capture with the bulk and noise of conventional film cameras.
His latest film VIES (2000) is a series of portraits, shot with a digital camera, about which he says, "I shoot by myself, recording both picture and sound. It makes it easier with the person I'm shooting to move from life to film, and for there to be no observers present. We don't seem to diminish one another, when it might well be the opposite. There's only an affinity, which draws us together. If I get on well with someone, if I'm drawn to what they do, I've an annoying tendency to want to film them".
In a second interview with Le Monde, Cavalier explained his method as follows: "The picture to sound relationship is completely different with DV, you're alone, immersed in both image and sound which this time are part of the same apparatus. That changes the whole relationship with what you're filming. Before when I was handling a camera, I learned how to be a camera. Shooting with digital video transforms all relationships in the space in which you're filming. I've been a filmmaker working in kid gloves, I have become an instrumentalist who after practising his scales, then actually performs himself. The smaller the camera, the more simplified becomes the relationship between the one whose in front of the camera and the one whose behind it. That whole century, during which actors were bombarded by Big Berthas, it's all gone. There's been a directorial terrorism, based on a mixture of fear and fascination, which can now be escaped."
VIES is, on the one hand, a speculation on the nature of cinema itself, opening with a filmed sketch of a sixty year old eye-surgeon, on his last day in the operating theatre before retiring busily restoring sight. The film closes with Cavalier's mobile subjective camera exploring the beautiful but decrepit ruins of the country house that belonged to Orson Welles. Thus we are left with an archaeological site of cinematic fantasy and imagination. Yet, on the other hand VIES, is just a series of beautifully created, tender and intimate portrait films that are a perfect example of technology being used as a simple tool to assist a filmmaker in the recording of their everyday perceived reality. Both The Gleaners and VIES reinforce Rossellini's dictum "things are there; why manipulate them?"
However, for Jean Luc Godard, the technology of production and the aesthetic of the image have to be created hand in hand. He was driven to ensure that his cinematic production tools were, like suits, "instruments built to measure", whilst simultaneously pursuing the potential of transforming and manipulating the image. To this end, in 1976 whilst making Numero Deux, Godard developed a video laboratory in which to produce his radically manipulated images and texts and then in 1978, he worked with Francis Reusser of Aaton Cameras to develop a hand-held silent and unobtrusive 16mm and 35mm camera technology. In Scenario du Passion (1982), Godardcan be seen reaching up to make contact with a giant white video screen (his blank page or canvas) like a sorcerer summoning up the invisible, so that he can both "see" and "re-see-ve." For Godard, there is no such thing as "simple images - the whole world is too much for one image. You need several of them, a chain of images", and they will almost inevitably be multiple, dissolved, as well as being disconnected and layered.
Since making Surveillance, Chris Petit's work has evolved in a similar direction, abandoning the conventional film documentary and narrative feature film for the subjective essay form whilst also embracing the influence of both Godard and Chris Marker, by digitally distorting the surface image. Petit has written, "Chris Marker's film essays struck me as increasingly important, for their method, form and solitary endeavour, and above all for the way they were alert to the time in which they were made. To paraphrase David Thomson's entry, Marker was part cosmonaut, part essayist... in the ground gone over and the distances involved, his travels anticipated the more flexible and solitary possibilities of the digital revolution." (Film Comment : March-April 2001)
Petit's subsequent work produced in collaboration with psycho-geographer, poet, essayist and novelist Iain Sinclair, is an almost random experimentation with the memory of culture using and abusing the new digital technology in the process. In these works the photographic and digital images of the films have, once digitised, been manipulated individually, almost as though each and every frame was an abstract expressionist painting. This process reflects the beauty of Godard's remark in Comment ca va, "to proceed from an image, only one, like an atom, to see how it moves and how it all holds together." Graphic novelist and digital artist Dave McKean has significantly collaborated in this process and Petit's creative team have significantly transformed the surface of the images and have created a filmed world that resembles one we know might have been filmed, but now bears no reality to it at all. The computer, the very symbol of automation, has in fact been liberated within the filmmaking process.
The very early days of the cinema of the magic lantern, and the Zoetrope, where once a modest number of frames were hand-painted, is long past and now thousands of images can be manually altered. Both Petit's The Falconer (1998) and Asylum (2000), are essentially experiments which lean backwards to the notion of very early cinema. In a sense these projects appear designed less as films than as pure explorations of form. Both are visually cluttered, layered, scribbled-over, and multi-textured. Shot like home movies, without scripts, they have an elaborate painterly surface where frames are in both collision and fusion, the result of constantly re-filming and manipulating the image during the edit process. They are clearly marked by a process of tentative discovery and distinguished by the marks of trial and error. Petit has said that, "he was interested in seeing if there was a way of producing a film which was constructed more like writing - because when you are writing something you don't necessarily know where it is going to end up... The Falconer for example never really aspired to be a film, more to a state of mutation or hybrid. It was an essay or a graphic novel as much as it was a film, an exercise in vertical layering rather than linear unfolding, a catalogue of mistakes and oppositions."
New possibilities for 'hallucinations of reality'
Alexaandre Astruc's classic 1948 essay, "The birth of a new avant-garde: La camera-stylo" (Ecran Francais 144) opens by quoting Orson Welles, "What interests me in the cinema is abstraction". Astruc continues by stating that "the cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel."
What gave cinema part of its value - a confident, assured and unchallenged recording of reality, and one that was extremely difficult to modify and manipulate - has now been fundamentally changed by the new digital technology. Film, of course, still retains a magical, even alchemical property, and the film frame itself has a luminosity that video doesn't and probably never will possess. Nevertheless, the new ways that digital technology offers the potential of manipulating the image poses exciting and radical challenges for the future of cinema and ones that open up exciting opportunities to extend Astruc's concepts of abstraction, subjectivity and complexity.
Inevitably Cameron, Annaud and the other Hollywood techno-wizzards will continue to research, refine and define the making of a highly polished and invisibly digitally produced entertainment cinema for the mass market. It will be left to the nomadic and itinerant artists to seize every opportunity offered and forage away at the digital perimeter fence. Hopefully some of this radical thinking will literally rub off on both the low no-budget fiction film, and the authored documentary essay. It is to be hoped that a Digital Cinema of the future can provide at least one terminal where the filmmakers feel confident and liberated enough to reject the often paralysing yoke of mainstream narrative and storytelling. Where, escaping the drizzle of the everyday they will re-align themselves more closely with the realm of the "animated painted image", which is where cinema came in a hundred years ago. This will certainly only happen within a very small bandit community, with a marginal and small audience for the work. But, it might hopefully achieve a range of more stimulating and radically digitally manipulated fictive films, that refreshingly could at least be closer to what Petit recalls about the writings of Celine - "hallucinations of reality".
April 2001. © Keith Griffiths. An earlier version of this article was written for POINT (The Art and Design Research Journal), published twice yearly.